Review: “Halo: The Thursday War” by Karen Traviss

Title: The Thursday War
Author: Karen Traviss
Series: Halo: The Kilo-Five Trilogy Book II
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2012

This will be the first Halo book I’ve read since starting this blog (unfortunately, it’s part two of a trilogy), but for a while there I was on a real bender. I read all of them that were published, and then waited impatiently for this one to be released. Once it was, it sat unread on my shelf for a year and a half for some unfathomable reason….I’ve always appreciated the depth of the world created for the Halo games. It goes way deeper than any I’d encountered before when I first discovered it, way back with the prequel novel to the first game, The Fall Of Reach by Eric Nylund. I’d never even played the game at that point, but that book so gripped me and pulled me in that I’ve been hooked ever since. There have of course been some ups and downs, including the necessity of avoiding the cutting edge of the ongoing plot between the release of Halo 2 and Halo 3 to avoid spoilers, but on the whole it’s been a fascinating universe to visit in these novels. So when I heard that they’d hired Karen Traviss to write a trilogy setting up Halo 4 I was ecstatic. Karen Traviss happens to be one of my favorite writers of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, second only to Timothy Zahn, and even there I waffle back and forth at times. She no longer works with Lucasfilm after a very public falling out over some idiotic restrictions they placed on what she could and couldn’t do in the final book of the series she was writing,* but I’ve kept an eye on her work ever since. I’m looking at powering through the Gears Of War tie-ins she’s written in the near future as well.

Okay, so here’s the world of Halo: five hundred years from now (give or take) humanity has colonized the stars under the authority of the United Nations Space Corps. (UNSC), spreading across the galaxy the way we’ve done since the dawn of time on our own world.** Eventually, we ran up against the Covenant, an expansionist theocratic empire composed of a number of different alien races. The Covenant worship the Forerunner, a vanished ancient civilization that left behind a wealth of artifacts and installations strewn across the galaxy. Humanity found itself locked in a brutal war against an enemy that believed our annihilation was their god-given duty. On the ground, humanity could hold our own with the Covenant. In space they hold most of the cards, and having lost a ground engagement can simply pour plasma fire into the planet’s surface until it’s uninhabitable. Colony by colony, the UNSC lost ground. The tide was stemmed somewhat when the Spartan II’s joined the fray, super-soldiers kidnapped as kids and put through a series of genetic and surgical treatments on top of the most rigorous training program that could be devised. But even the Spartans could only do so much, and soon Humanity faced a far more dangerous threat. According to the Covenant Prophets, the Forerunner ascended to another plane of existence by activating the Halos, a series of artificial ring-shaped worlds. What really happened, as discovered by the Master Chief (the player character for the core Halo games), is that the Forerunner were facing the annihilation of all intelligent life in the galaxy by the Flood, a nasty parasitic organism. They built the Halo arrays as a weapon of last resort, hiding specimens of every species inside the massive Ark installation far out of reach of the Halo arrays. They planned to retreat to a shielded world themselves, then activate the Halos to purge the Flood from the galaxy. They never made it to the shield world. Somehow, the Halos were activated and the Forerunner perished alongside the Flood. The Covenant tried to activate the Halos, hoping to follow the Forerunner into godhood. The Master Chief was able to thwart them–twice–and in the process certain elements of the Covenant learned the truth about the Covenant, causing a violent schism. The Arbiter, an Elite warrior who had been instrumental in the discovery, led a revolt against the prophet overlords and allied himself and his followers with the humans, working together to thwart the Prophets’ final plan to fire all the Halo arrays. It worked, but the Master Chief was lost in the attempt.***

Such is the state of things at the end of Halo 3: the Covenant is defeated and splintered, at least for the time being. Humanity is triumphant, and the Elites are our new allies. All is well, yes? Not so much, actually. The end of the war with the Covenant means that the old tensions between Earth and the colonies are heating back up without the more pressing threat to keep the Insurrectionists at bay. Then too, how much do we trust the Elites? The Arbiter himself seems honorable, so far as that goes with a species whose culture we barely understand, but we spent a generation fighting each other. Even if we can trust the Arbiter to keep his word, he won’t hold onto power forever. Eventually, we’re going to have to fight the Elites again, and it would be in Earth’s best interest if they weren’t allowed to regain their former power before we do it. Both of these issues fall under the purview of the Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI–the UNSC version of the CIA, but with even more dirty tricks up their sleeve. The head of ONI puts together Kilo-5, a mixed-bag strike team capable of dealing with both threats. There’s a Spartan, Naomi, a couple ODST Helljumpers, an expert on Elite culture and language, as well as the team leader who is being groomed to take over the entirety of ONI one day and a fourth-generation AI. Their mission consists mainly of spying on known Insurrectionists in between a series of “dirty tricks” operations to supply weapons to forces hostile to the Arbiter–ostensibly because ONI believes they’re more trustworthy, or at least more stable in the long term, than the Arbiter and his forces, but in reality just because it’s to our advantage to keep them fighting among themselves and too busy to come after us. Of course, it’s not all that easy. First, an overzealous underling discovers where his boss’s weapons are coming from. Then it’s discovered that Naomi’s dad is still alive, contrary to assumptions since his colony was glassed, but is now an Insurrectionist leader convinced that the government was behind his daughter’s kidnapping. It would be less complicated if he was wrong….but Kilo-5 doesn’t have time to worry about that now, because their expert on the Elites is stuck on their home planet in the middle of the suddenly-erupted civil war.

This was excellent–pure Karen Traviss at her best. There are few writers–or at least, few who deal with licensed properties–who can take in the world that’s been created by other authors in a variety of media and see the subtleties, the right places to poke and show you that the struggle you thought was black and white is actually composed of a rainbow of shades of gray. That the villains aren’t always evil, and the heroes aren’t always noble. That sometimes it comes down to people doing bad things for a good reason. There are obvious parallels to her Republic Commando novels, even beyond the Commandos/Spartans who share an origin rife with moral ambiguity. To some degree this is a departure from previous Halo stories in that it features an almost-entirely new set of characters, but that’s pretty much required by the status quo Traviss was handed, and I have no problem with that. Will this be confusing to people unfamiliar with the world of Halo? Yes, I fear it would, and you can’t get a good handle on the world without playing at least the second and third games (the first game has a novelization, but the second and third do not). I tried, back when I didn’t have an X-Box. Will this trilogy end leaving you somewhat unfulfilled? Probably not too much, given Traviss’ abilities, but certain plot threads are definitely being woven as a set-up for Halo 4. Bottom line: I loved it, but I’m already invested in this world. If you aren’t, this probably isn’t the place to start.

CONTENT: Mild language, PG-13 grade. Violence, occasionally gory. Mild sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit.

*Not very objective, am I? No, I realize that. Here’s the short version of my nerd-rage rant: Karen Traviss had a series she was working on featuring the Republic Commandos during the Clone Wars. By the later part of the series, almost the entirety of the action was set on the planet Mandalore, the culture of which she had managed to stitch together from a hundred disparate and contradictory threads into something that was actually cohesive (and incredibly awesome!) Just as she reaches the climax of the series, with one book to go, she’s told that she’s no longer allowed to do anything with the Mandalorian planet or culture because the Clone Wars animated series is going to be pulling a major retcon dealing with those topics. Frustrated for obvious reasons, Traviss left the franchise. Having read her series up to it’s final cliffhanger (that will now never be resolved) and watched the series at least that far, I can tell you without a doubt: Traviss’ vision was better. The show made the coolest warrior culture in the GFFA (in my humble opinion) into a bunch of pacifists! Really? Gah! Okay, I’m cutting this off before my nerd-rage erupts and embarrasses us all….
**There’s another series of Halo tie-ins I’ve yet to read that suggest Humanity has colonized the stars once before, only to devolve back into the stone age, but I’m ignoring that here for simplicity’s sake.
***Not dead–lost. He was in the wrong section of a ship that got cut in half when a portal failed. The UNSC presumes him dead, but we know he was last seen entering cryosleep as what’s left of the ship drifts through the void….

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

2 responses to “Review: “Halo: The Thursday War” by Karen Traviss

  1. She gets around, doesn’t she?! I really, really enjoyed her Legacy of the Force books, they were the highlight of that series for me! Your point about her taking other peoples’ universes and making so much more out of them really resonated for me! So, while I’ve never read a Halo book (or, for that matter, played the game), it’s good to know Traviss can do that wherever she treads, and not just with Star Wars!

    • Those were great, and even tied into her Republic Commando stuff a bit. Thanks to a couple scenes there, you can almost extrapolate at least bits and pieces of how it would have ended. Like I said, after I finish this trilogy I’m looking forward to seeing how she does with the characters from Gears of War….

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